I’ve enjoyed the swords and sorcery genre since my first exposure to The Hobbit over a quarter of a century ago. The legends of King Arthur and his knights of the round table, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Beowulf, world mythologies and folk lore in general, even the Egyptian pyramids, the mysteries of the Aztecs, Stonehenge, the Easter Island monoliths, or the noble and often brutal ancient histories of long forgotten cultures of antiquity, their relics, talismans, artifacts, and the stories that those items themselves have since inspired – all these things have teased me with wonder and excitement throughout my reading career. And the fiction that to some degree parallels this source material has for a long time held a special place in my heart.
I was finishing up my reading of yet another fantasy fiction flop (The Sword by Deborah Chester, book one of a trilogy), when I decided to offer what I consider the secret recipe for creating enduring fantasy fiction (ff). Consider this an open letter of sorts to prospective ff writers and audiences of both adult and young adult fare. But let’s first clarify by way of contrast what I mean by fantasy fiction (ff) before we move on to what constitutes the good stuff.
Stories like Peter Pan and Harry Pothead, while considered fantasy or fairy tales by some, are actually examples of escapist fiction – worlds where there’s no price for power and little if any consequence for bad choices. These are stories about kids who can fly with or without brooms and wield wands hurly-burly. They’re best equated with, say, Santa Claus. The impossible is taken for granted. Questioning the origins, physics, or source of such powers isn’t important to the story. This doesn’t mean escapism has no merit. But it’s not fantasy fiction.
Fairy tales, at least the more modern ones geared toward children, generally open with Once Upon a Time and end with They Lived Happily Ever After. Barring those familiar phrases, they can be spotted most readily by their absence of emotion. Prince Cliché traveled to Scary Place, vanquished Meanie-Monster, rescued damsel Booty Call from the clutches of Naughty-Man, and so on. Such stories don’t concern themselves with character motivations so much as with offering a bit of chaste romance or a moral, and, ultimately, what happened is more important than who it happened to.
Whereas stories of enchanted lands that mirror our own, narratives that explore a hero’s faults and fears, distinguish the petty from the profound, confront the human condition, stir our conscience, enliven our spirit and, yes, even inform our faith, are more accurately considered fantasy fiction, or high fantasy even, depending on the themes. Life’s challenges are brought into better focus when we’re allowed to confront truth in ways that don’t offend our sensibilities. Enlightenment is achieved, or at least more likely, when the protagonist experiences challenges similar to our own, ideally in a more dramatic or spectacular setting.
Whether a writer fails to incorporate these things could be a matter of interpretation. What I find vain and petty the writer might consider profound. It's also conceivable that many writers simply don’t know how to represent these themes effectively or that their efforts simply fall flat. A writer’s intent can be quite different from the finished product. But that’s what friends and family and feedback are for, and should be consulted before submitting that manuscript to a potential publisher.
In his book Stein on Writing, Sol Stein argues for the value of character development by pointing out when a writer kills off four strangers in a car accident, the reader’s response is “Who cares?” Strangers don’t emotionally impact the reader. But if the writer first establishes who those people are in the car and then allows the car to crash, we’re more likely to be emotionally affected and concerned.
That truth can be extended to genres. Most ff doesn’t attempt to explain the source of magic in their world. It's treated as just an alternate tool – what guns are for cops and robbers, what problem solving is for detective stories, what hyper drive is for sci-fi. Yet when those novels offer an explanation about those methods or that supernatural power, the story is enriched. Credibility is strengthened, especially when the structure of that world hinges on those marvels.
Another theme often lacking in ff, despite being best suited for the genre, is sacrifice. By sacrifice I don’t necessarily mean one dying to save another, though that event can be evocative if handled right. I mean the oft ignored importance of cost: the price for power. This exchange lends depth to a story’s context, and it defines the nature of high fantasy. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Rings Trilogy or Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Chronicles are prime examples. What was not in the movie version of The Fellowship of the Ring when the company was being pursued by orcs and racing to the
in the mines of Moria is a great demonstration of the exertion of power and its cost on the wielder. bridge of Khazad Dum
Suddenly at the top of the stair there was a stab of white light…. Gandalf came flying down the steps and fell to the ground in the midst of the company…. “I have done all that I could. But I have met my match, and have nearly been destroyed…. You will have to do without light for a while …”
Gandalf later explains what happened off stage:
“I could think of nothing to do but to put a shutting-spell on the door. I know many; but to do things of that kind rightly requires time, and even then the door can be broken by strength.…”
Keep in mind Gandalf in the books is immortal, one of the Maia, a spirit essentially, sent to Middle-Earth and assuming flesh and blood via the body of an old man, a Christ-like figure actually. Yet even then Gandalf, as seen in the above example, expends power at a cost, drains his physical strength, at least temporarily.
If you saw the first act in the movie version of Stephen King’s novel Firestarter, you may recall the scene where the father and his daughter, who’ve escaped from a secret government experiment, are trying to hail a cab. The father has only a one dollar bill, but he knows the fare will be much more. He gives an address, hands the cabbie the dollar and makes this terrifically painful expression on his face while pressing his fingers to his temple. The cabbie miraculously sees a twenty dollar bill, not a one, and agrees to drive them. The father sits back in his seat and his nose begins to bleed. Again, this classic ‘price for power’ exchange lends a sense of realism to the context. After all, Superman had his Kryptonite. Achilles had his heel. Samson had his hair. This is the classic trade off, and it takes many forms. But to reject any of its iterations outright is to cripple one’s ff story-telling efforts.
Unfortunately, with today’s ff market, finding works by writers who understand the importance of the ‘price for power’ theme is like finding drivers who still use their turn signals. Like the power of myth, the lessons or techniques are either forgotten or dismissed. Instead, the genre is saturated with dreary stories of buxom beauties, mundane motivations, and ultimately shallow characters. Without the techniques listed above, the vast majority tends to be frivolous and forgettable.
Tales that allude to something beyond the tale itself by way of parallel, analogy, allegory, and metaphor are separate issues altogether, but they, too, tend to not only leave a lasting impression, but qualify for a much more enduring work than the transient trash that describes most ff, where the good guy (or gal) usually wins only because of things like superior brawn or wit.
Despite the other-worldliness of Middle-Earth or C.S Lewis’ Narnia or Donaldson’s Land, the stories – regardless of the strange peoples and alternate time – are rooted in basic truths, namely that our choices matter, that what we do has consequence. Often drawn from folk lore and religious teaching, the themes of sacrifice and suffering exemplified in these stories enhance the gravity of their outcomes. Essentially, for writers like Tolkien, Lewis, and Donaldson, fantasy fiction was anything but escapism.